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Is 'Empire State of Mind' the new 'New York, New York'?

Jay-Z's hit single is hot now, and it could have the staying power of classic songs about the city.

January 03, 2010|By Geraldine Baum
  • HOME TEAM: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys perform "Empire State of Mind" at Yankee Stadium before Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 29. The song is his first No. 1 single on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.
HOME TEAM: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys perform "Empire State of Mind"… (David J. Phillip / Associated…)

Reporting from New York — It has been nearly impossible lately to surf the radio without hearing Jay-Z rapping about his gritty-to-glamorous ascent in the big city as Alicia Keys swoons about the "concrete jungle where dreams are made of . . ."

The song "Empire State of Mind" was the biggest hit at Yankee Stadium this fall, and then, just days before Jay-Z turned 40, it gave the rap legend his first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 list. And if it wasn't already ubiquitous, its beat blaring from the radio in almost every corner store, last month Keys issued her own version on her new album and has been regularly performing this salute to the aspirations of native New Yorkers.

For the last three decades, Frank Sinatra's " New York, New York," from the songwriting team of Kander and Ebb, has ruled as the city's sentimental favorite -- in ballparks, at weddings and to signal determination. Over the same three decades, hip-hop grew to be the dominant force in pop music and culture and Jay-Z one of its leading citizens. Like any good New Yorker, he has made no secret of his ambition to topple what came before him; and since there are few left to take on, he's trying to elbow aside the Chairman of the Board with an anthem reflective of a new generation.

But can any hip-hop song prove as universal and enduring as Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" (written by Billy Strayhorn) or Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's " Manhattan"? Or, for that matter, that other easy-to-whistle "New York, New York," by Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green,which explains, "the Bronx is up and the Battery down, the people ride in a hole in the ground"?

The answer is maybe, maybe not.

The hot new hit

From the very start of "Empire State," Jay-Z's lyrics sum up his rise from street kid to celebrity as well as his vision of New York in line with anthems that precede him:

Yea I'm out that Brooklyn

Now I'm down in TriBeCa

Right next to DeNiro

But I'll be hood forever

I'm the new Sinatra and . . . since I made it here

I can make it anywhere.

Even the idea of a "new Sinatra" feels wrong to Jonathan Schwartz, a radio personality from New York with an encyclopedic knowledge of the singer. During a phone interview, Schwartz hums one of his favorite ballads of the city, the 1934 slow-tempo "Autumn in New York," by Vernon Duke, who composed "April in Paris."

"These songs are . . . for everyone, forever," he says, complaining that the street music of today "won't last because it has no melody and very little that even rhymes. Words like 'home' and 'alone' don't rhyme and yet that's what these rappers use. That never would have been with a Vernon Duke or Oscar Hammerstein . . ."

But composer John Kander, who with the late Fred Ebb wrote the musical "Cabaret" as well as Sinatra's enduring anthem, is intrigued by Jay-Z's ode to the big city.

"I thought it was kind of interesting because it juxtaposed totally different styles of music," says Kander, 82, explaining it was first brought to his attention by another musical theater star, 29-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda, who mixed rap with other styles in the Broadway hit "In the Heights."

Other than suggesting that an anthem usually embodies some measure of hope, Kander could not -- and would not -- attempt to explain what makes a city connect with a certain song; he merely pointed out that "Empire State of Mind" has as much of a chance of enjoying another 30 years of popularity as his did 30 years ago. "It doesn't matter what I think or what the critics say," says Kander. "It's what people think and feel and hang on to."

Kander and Ebb wrote and then rewrote "New York, New York" for a 1977 Martin Scorsese movie of the same name. ( Robert De Niro, who costarred with Liza Minnelli, didn't think their first version was "strong enough," so out of sheer anger of being told what to do by an actor, they reworked it in 45 minutes.) But even that version didn't go anywhere until Sinatra remade it a few years later.

"He rearranged it for his more limited range and botched the lyrics," Kander recalls with a chuckle (there was no "A Number One" in Ebb's lyrics), "and when I first heard it, I thought, 'Oh gosh, shouldn't we fix it for Sinatra?' But it became huge without us. So who's to say?"

Sinatra first performed "New York, New York" at an October 1978 concert in Radio City Music Hall. He was 62 with a voice that wasn't what it once was. But he still had the timing and the feral excitement of the kid from the mobbed-up Hoboken waterfront you could just imagine looking across the river thinking, "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere."

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